Around the world in 3650 days: Discovery turns 10 in Europe, 5 in Latin America and Asia

On its anniversary, ANDY FRY explores the depth and size of the footprint the giant...
February 1, 1999

On its anniversary, ANDY FRY explores the depth and size of the footprint the giant

has left overseas

Ten years ago, Discovery Networks International (DNI) took its first tentative steps overseas with the cable launch of Discovery Channel Europe to 200,000 homes in Scandinavia and the U.K. As it enters 1999, Discovery Channels are seen by 68 million households in 143 countries outside the U.S. All told, DNI’s service is made up of 32 feeds, transmitted over 15 satellites, in 24 languages.

According to DNI president, Don Wear, success overseas has depended on two factors: entertainment and content customization. Wear believes ‘Discovery has done as good a job as anyone in tailoring its schedules to individual markets. Right from the start, we knew we didn’t want to parachute into territories.’

That didn’t necessarily mean making original shows for overseas networks, which would have been prohibitively expensive. Instead, there was a concerted effort to create ‘a sense of affinity through program customization, reversioning and the use of local hosts. We may never be as local as Doordashan in India or TV Globo in Brazil, but we have become part of the environment, with the added benefit that we can offer viewers a window on the world.’

For Wear, the most visible expression of Discovery’s influence is its ability to host global events live around the world. Following last year’s broadcast from the Titanic, 1999 will see a live global broadcast of Cleopatra’s Palace (produced by Toronto’s Cinenova, and fully-commissioned by Discovery) from the seabed just off the coast of Egypt.

DISCOVERY IN EUROPE: taking on terrestrial, taking risks with digital

Available to 17 million viewers in 14 languages, Discovery Networks Europe (DNE) has nurtured a potent brand, built up a substantial body of original production, and taken bold steps in the direction of digital cable and satellite distribution.

Faced with a wealth of high-quality factual shows already on Europe’s terrestrial schedules, it was clear DCE would need to offer paying customers something more than acquisitions in order to prosper.

Joyce Taylor, managing director of DNE, believes this realization was the single most significant revelation. ‘We had to start from scratch with acquired product,’ she says. ‘But the most important shift along the way was the decision, five or six years ago, to invest in high-quality program production.’

The new programming came in a variety of formats. While DCE benefited from blue-chip factual (largely paid for out of the U.S.), increasing sums went towards low-cost, high-volume series targeted at European audiences. Initially, this was overseen by now general manager, Nick Comer-Calder. Subsequently, the responsibility for origination fell to Chris Hawes and Liz Barron. (See The Production Story, pg. 76)

According to Taylor: ‘You can only make stuff once you’re earning enough to justify it. Obviously we were working at the cheaper end of the market, but there were many benefits. Not only does the originated material rate well because it is culturally specific, but it also gives us a live and growing library.’ The benefit of that archive became apparent this year, when Discovery was able to launch three digital networks (Discovery Sci-Trek, Discovery Travel & Adventure and Discovery Civilizations), within a matter of weeks.

Taylor reinforces Wear’s emphasis on customization. ‘Many [U.S.] companies came to Europe as a natural next stage of development. But, Discovery quickly realized that the matrix of language, culture and regulatory structures here mean there isn’t actually a place called Europe at all.’ One obvious example of customization was the decision to ditch the TLC model – popular in the U.S. – and replace it with Discovery Home & Leisure, a concept specifically tailored for the U.K.

The U.K. remains Discovery’s strongest European market, despite the arrival in the last 18 months of National Geographic and U.K. Horizons. Taylor doesn’t see these as key competition. ‘They may be competition for cable and satellite carriage, but not for viewers. In fact, I welcome their arrival because they are growing the audience for factual programs. The real challenge for us is the terrestrial schedules.’

As digital begins to grow in Europe, Taylor sees Discovery’s job as ‘meeting people’s moods. We have to make sure we are there if they are in the mood for travel, technology, gardening, whatever. We have to find new audiences and get existing fans watching for longer by building channels that resemble magazines.’

Wear sees such growth as their biggest challenge. In a mature market like Europe, it has meant the introduction of Animal Planet on analog, cable and satellite in 1998, and the increased focus on digital distribution. Despite setbacks in Germany, where Discovery has made little headway on digital, the U.K. digital multiplex is viewed as a positive step.

THE PRODUCTION STORY: Start-up, to resistance, to commissioning first-timers

As Discovery expanded overseas, it became clear to Bethesda’s senior management that it would need to inject cash into program production.

Most program-making dollars have been spent on shows that are, first and foremost, relevant to the dominant U.S. market. These shows have been adapted to fill the needs of overseas audiences, but this approach has its limitations. Firstly, programs funded and distributed in this way tend to be high-budget specials – which limits the volume that can be shipped overseas. Secondly, audiences realize reversioned material was not meant for them.

These factors encouraged DNI to invest in a second tier of lower-cost shows, targeted specifically at Europe. In the mid-’90s, indie producer Chris Hawes was appointed to oversee this process from the London office.

According to Hawes: ‘My appointment was a quantum leap for Discovery Europe in terms of commissioning, production and coproduction. Before me, there hadn’t been a commissioning editor. It was a sign that we were taking regional production in Europe seriously.’

Hawes was not alone in this venture. Alongside him was Liz Barron (now at BBC Worldwide), who was appointed commissioning editor for Discovery Home & Leisure.

‘We worked together hatching plots,’ says Hawes. ‘Liz was looking for around 150 hours of programming a year while I was commissioning about 80. That volume immediately made us one of the largest commissioning entities on the European multichannels scene.’

Although Hawes was producing less than Barron, his budgets were slightly higher and his brief more wide-ranging. With a service aimed at all of Europe, it was vital to seek out producers and potential coproduction partners across the continent.

‘Joyce Taylor and Nick Comer-Calder [encouraged] me to exploit the whole of the European production community,’ recalls Hawes. ‘I started by talking to the regional ITV broadcasters and BBC Scotland. Afterwards, I went to see French, Dutch and Scandinavian broadcasters and producers.’

Although many factual producers welcomed the prospect of a new outlet, there was resistance. Some European documentary producers saw the arrival of Discovery as a threat to the classic auteur approach to filmmaking. Even among those who accepted the Discovery proposition, there was skepticism about budgets. Hawes’ biggest challenge was persuading producers to work with numbers which rarely exceed US$20,000 – $30,000 per half hour.

‘We were trying to persuade people that quality programs could be made on small budgets, if they were well thought through and clearly focused,’ says Hawes. ‘We were acutely aware of the need for suitable programs at a tenth of the cost, but not a tenth of the quality. The shows we originated had to be as good as the other Discovery, Channel 4 and BBC2 shows they would be compared with.’

Hawes believes Discovery’s commissioning policy has worked for two reasons. The first is a willingness to compromise. ‘When you don’t have a lot of money, it forces you to coproduce. That, in turn, gives you a broader range of views in your programming.’ The second has been Discovery’s focused approach. ‘We have always known exactly what we want. We give producers a degree of clarity in our commissioning.’

That Discovery Europe has succeeded in shifting opinions in its favor is widely attributed to Hawes’ own enthusiasm.

ITN Productions’ managing director, Julian Ware, who has made a number of series and one-off films for Discovery Europe (see sidebar), says: ‘Chris understands the difficulty of marrying budgets with aspirations – and has always worked with us to make a production succeed.’

This assessment is endorsed by Richard Key, a freelance documentary producer who was one of the first to work with Discovery (while seconded to Central Television’s documentary unit, which is now part of Carlton). Key oversaw a series of films, called Outlaws, which were made by Central for Discovery Europe. Subsequently, he executive produced a series called Professionals. Six films in this series were made for Discovery by Carlton – the remainder by indies.

Key cites two particular characteristics which enabled Discovery to achieve quality shows at low prices. The first was Hawes’ insistence on traditional factual program-making preparation. ‘I was trained to produce and edit a script before I went out to shoot. That way, I was forced to decide what would be in and what would be out. That approach was critical when working to Discovery’s budgets. When you have six shooting days and 2-3 weeks to edit, you know you can’t afford to just squirt out tape. In this respect, Chris and I were kindred spirits.’

The second factor was Hawes’ efforts to make the budget work as hard as possible. For Professionals, he swapped the use of Carlton’s top-notch facilities for some equity in the series. Similarly, he exchanged rights for ITN archive footage on an ITN-produced series called Disasters – a deal, says Ware, ‘which had the effect of making a $25,000 per half-hour budget look like $80,000.’

Key also believes Discovery Europe has played a significant role in bringing on young talent. ‘Professionals was a way for us to give a chance to editors, researchers and other first-time filmmakers – and it was generally very successful.’

Encouraging new talent has become a keystone of Discovery Europe’s activities. Currently, it is running a First Time Film Makers Initiative which has already resulted in series of films from unknowns in the U.K. and South Africa. A German series is close to completion and projects in the Netherlands and Latin America are next in line.

Hawes’ rationale for this scheme: ‘The roladex of great filmmakers is not that big. We need to stimulate new talent whether it comes from New Delhi, Nova Scotia or Johannesburg.’

In the case of the First-timer program, a more experienced producer is given the job of executive producing the series. In Germany, it is Jens Meurer, managing director of Egoli Films.

Meurer is one of many who heaps praise on the Discovery approach. ‘We are overseeing a six-part series called East Side Stories which deals with stories from East Germany,’ he says, ‘and we have found it very rewarding working with a real commercial operation like Discovery.’

He admits that ‘the contractual phase of our relationship with Discovery Europe was complex, but in terms of production, they have proved more respectful of our work and treated us more professionally than some of their counterparts in public television. A lot of that is to do with Chris Hawes’ above-the-board style.’

One of Hawes’ boasts is that he has sanctioned high-quality films that ‘would not have made it onto the terrestrial networks.’ As an example, he cites Girls in the Hood, an alarming but touching observational film about girl gangs in Los Angeles (coproduced with London’s Union Pictures). ‘It was very risky because we had to persuade the U.K. regulators that it was necessary for the sake of context to broadcast so much bad language.’

Another Hawes favorite is Taxi Wars, from South African first-timer Thulani Mokoena. ‘As I watched the rushes, I thought it would be the first film I had ever seen in which a murder took place on camera. You wouldn’t have got that from a standard western film crew.’

Ironically, Hawes has been so successful at the European level that, in the fall of 1998, he was given a new role as senior VP and executive producer, Discovery Networks International. Although this new post may present some opportunities for international producers, it has left some Europeans concerned that Hawes’ departure will lead to a slowdown in commissioning.

This concern is exacerbated by the Discovery/BBC joint-venture, which some producers fear will squeeze indie opportunities. DNI president, Don Wear, is encouraging: ‘We are such a joyful consumer of production, that the bbc relationship shouldn’t be a threat to indies. Discovery has never vertically-integrated because it is on the search for the best creative content, wherever it comes from.’

In Hawes’ new role, he will act as a go-between, coordinating production possibilities between different parts of DNI. ‘I will scurry around the system trying to assess common interest,’ says Hawes. ‘If, for example, Manny Ayala, the general manager in Asia, has an idea that could travel, I might act as a broker with Latin America or Europe, seeking ways to raise funds and refine the idea to suit all involved.’

Hawes also believes he will be able to act as a conduit for the rest of the world to the U.S. ‘DNI is evolving so fast that by end of next year there will be as many subscribers outside the U.S. as within. I will be seeking to create a clear two-way communication between domestic and international networks.’

For the future, Hawes can only see Discovery growing in importance in the international production community. ‘There is not a documentary-maker on this planet who has not already been affected by Discovery,’ he claims, ‘and when the youngest filmmaker today has retired, it will still be around. We have a real commercial interest in ensuring that high-quality factual programs continue to be made – and we will play a part in all technological advances which aid good storytelling.’


PRODUCTION PARTNERS: ITN runs the gamut with DCE

ITN Productions is one of the most prolific of Discovery Europe’s partners.

Over the years, it has made a 13 x 30-minute series called Driving Passions, based on the expertise of leading U.K. car magazine Autocar & Motor; three 13 x 30-minute series called Disaster, based on ITN’s extensive news archive; and a 13 x 30-minute series of Great Escapes.

In addition, says managing director Julian Ware, there have been ‘numerous’ one-offs and three-hour mini-series on subjects as diverse as heart transplantation and the future of the car. Sometimes these are funded entirely by Discovery Europe, sometimes with finance from Discovery U.S. or other coproduction partners.

Ware stresses that, when working with Discovery Europe, ‘you’ve got to be looking for ways to ensure the series makes financial sense.’

In the case of Disasters, the decision to sanction the use of ITN’s archive was made on the understanding that ITN would have a position on rights exploitation. ‘Disasters had obvious international appeal and has sold to a number of broadcasters, including PBS in the U.S.,’ he says.

Great Escapes is tougher to justify financially, because it doesn’t rely on archive footage. ‘We cover subjects such as the U.K. marines lost in Borneo or the last escape over the Berlin Wall – which is hard to do on a tight budget.’

The appeal, however, lies in the length of the series. Not only does a 13-parter allow producers to amortize costs, it also travels better on the international market than the short runs typically commissioned by British terrestrial broadcasters.

Ware is another producer who believes Discovery has made important contributions to program-making through its commissions. ‘We made the definitive story of how the U-Boat war was fought. That wouldn’t have made it on terrestrial tv, but in 100 years time it will be an important historical document.’

On ITN’s film about Richard Noble’s land speed record: ‘Discovery Europe took a quick decision to come on board from the start,’ says Ware. ‘It then agreed to a one-hour film which followed the program through its critical year of development. It may be a niche piece of history but it is also a real landmark.’

Ware believes Discovery Europe has managed to encourage quality production while maintaining amicable relationships with its producers. ‘It feels more like a family affair with Discovery than with other broadcasters. There is a feeling that you are all making programs together,’ says Ware.

PRODUCTION PARTNERS: First Freedom finds room for new editorial slants

Arguably, the most memorable film Graham Addicott’s company, London-based First Freedom, has made for Discovery Europe was the 48-minute film about the Tallin Bomb Squad in Estonia, produced with local talent from Allfilm Productions in Tallin.

Prior to filming, Addicott was unaware that ‘Tallin is the most bombed place in Europe, and they have a bomb squad consisting of just ten people – one of whom is blind and has no hands.

‘What is genuinely interesting about Discovery is that they make important films that would never have been done by the terrestrials. They would never have touched a film like this, which was three-quarters Russian and Estonian subtitles.’

First Freedom has made a wide range of unusual films for Discovery Europe. However, there are also subjects closer to home that would have gone unrecorded without Discovery, says Addicott. ‘We made a series called Supership about the building of the cruise ship Oriana. That is the sort of engines-and-grease series that has an audience but would not get made without a broadcaster like Discovery.’

Addicott is pragmatic about the budgets Discovery provides. ‘The budgets are tight, but they have managed to keep their production values higher than a lot of other cable and satellite operations. My view is that this is the way of the future. Working for Discovery has forced me to think about rights retention, coproductions and the value of the secondary market.’

Interestingly, it has also opened up the U.S. as a market to Addicott. Following his Oriana series, he won a commission from Travel Channel U.S. to produce a 13-part series following the Oriana on its journeys.

LATIN AMERICA AT FIVE: pushing ahead with multi-tier expansion

Discovery Channel Latin America was launched out of Miami in February 1994 – a time ‘when there weren’t that many companies in the pay-tv business down there,’ says Dawn McCall, senior VP and general manager of Discovery Networks, Latin America/Iberia. The main thing in its favor at the time was that ‘there was great familiarity with the brand throughout Mexico and Central America,’ adds McCall.

Today, the network reaches 11 million subscribers across the continent – making it the second largest pay-television service in the region. Independent research from the Television Association of Programmers Latin America also places it first for viewer satisfaction among cable networks.

Despite the fact that the cable and satellite infrastructure in much of Latin America is still relatively undeveloped, Discovery has pushed ahead with a multi-tiered expansion program. ‘Our core service was pretty well-received, so we looked around at what other gaps we were capable of filling,’ says McCall. ‘Given that the population in the region is so young, we put a plan together and launched Discovery Kids as a 24-hour network in fall 1996.’ To date, the service has picked up 7 million subscribers.

Consistent with its customization program, Discovery made it a priority to launch a Portuguese feed for Brazil. ‘We decided that if we were truly to service the needs of South America, we needed a separate signal for Brazil which was more than just an audio track,’ says McCall. She claims that policy is paying off, with subscriptions heading for the 2 million mark.

The channel roll-out program continued in 1997 with two further launches: Animal Planet and People & Arts, both joint-ventures with the BBC, though they were launched before the main BBC/DCI agreement had been signed. ‘We didn’t want to wait for the ink to dry,’ says McCall. ‘In this business, it gets more difficult to enter a market the longer you wait.’

To date, she claims the joint-venture is going smoothly – despite the potential for conflict between channel development and BBC Worldwide’s program distribution strategy. ‘We wanted to create a model in Latin America for how the jv would work,’ says McCall. ‘It has worked out very well for both the BBC and Discovery because we made it a priority to sit down and work through all the issues.’

The most ambitious locally-targeted production to date is Vida@Linea, a computer magazine series based on a concept that has already done well in the U.S. Produced by All Digital Productions, Vida@Linea uses Spanish-speaking hosts and content aimed at the Latin audience. There are now plans afoot for a Latin American version of Discovery’s First Time Film Maker Initiative.

McCall believes the local talent necessary to match her ambitions exists ‘in strong production centers such as Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico, Chile and Argentina.’ However, she also sees room for further cooperation with Spanish and Portuguese producers in Europe, who fall within Discovery’s Iberia feed (also launched in 1994).

In addition to more local programming, McCall is eager to find ways of increasing the distribution of her networks. ‘We have four strong channel brands and our priority is to explore ways to make them stronger throughout the region. We have to ask: `How do we get beyond the limits of our customer base?”

One way is to seek access for Discovery via terrestrial networks, says McCall. This could be done through program distribution, program blocks or maybe even by winning licenses for networks. There is also still room for new services (like The Travel Channel), via DTH.

As for the macro-economic prospects in the region, McCall does not foresee an Asia-style crash. ‘This continent is definitely coming of age. Latin America has achieved political stability and will be right in the middle of any boom in the global economy.’

ASIA AT FIVE: a pragmatic approach and local sensitivity key

‘Asia,’ says Kevin-John McIntyre, senior VP and general manager, Discovery Networks, Asia, ‘represents vast potential for programmers who are able to meet the diverse needs of the market.’

It is also a graveyard for companies that don’t do their homework, as the recent economic crash demonstrated.

McIntyre, who has spent 15 years in Asia (four of them with Hong Kong’s Star TV), says: ‘Most U.S. broadcasters were deluded by Asia’s gross statistics. But, with 40% of people here illiterate, and 70% going to bed hungry, there was a tremendous illusion about the size of the market.’

Despite that warning, Discovery has fared well. It now reaches 22 million subscribers, with services available in key territories such as China, India, Korea, Japan, Thailand and Malaysia.

This has been achieved by adopting a pragmatic approach, says McIntyre. ‘You have to be as flexible as possible with your distribution, and you have to control costs.’

Success in Asia also requires an acute sensitivity to local attitudes. ‘There is a tremendous resistance here to what is perceived of as cultural invasion. But, if there was ever a global channel capable of being customized for each of its key markets, Discovery is it. Whether you are talking to viewers in Brazil, the U.S. or China, there is an inherent interest in science, technology, natural history and world cultures. A law of physics doesn’t have a nationality, and a description of a bee is the same in any language.’

This is not to say that basic customization of services is not appropriate. ‘By amortizing costs over 130 million subscribers worldwide, countries like Singapore can get the best quality non-fiction entertainment at a price that makes sense. But, we recognized from the beginning that there was a need to customize language, timing and graphics.’

This program of customization has continued apace, with Japan now receiving a full service sub-titled in its own language. Malaysia, Taiwan and China also have sub-titles, while India, Korea and Thailand have dubbed services.

In addition to the general resistance to cultural invasion, some territories – notably China, Malaysia and Singapore – have sought to control the influx of western material.

‘When Star TV came along, it frightened some Asian governments,’ says McIntyre. ‘In countries where magazines like Cosmopolitan were banned, tv went from being a government arm to a situation where Baywatch was beamed free to anyone who could afford the dish.’

With all these points in mind, McIntyre says Discovery has emerged as a popular viewing choice throughout the region. ‘People don’t start out paying for their subscription for Discovery. Like anywhere else in the world, it’s sport, movies and news they want. But, if they default to Discovery, we find that, after six to nine months, it emerges as a popular, positive choice.’

The tight control on costs espoused by McIntyre has not completely deflected Discovery’s expansion plans. In addition to Discovery Channel Asia, Animal Planet was launched as a full service in 1997. Discovery Kids was also launched as a weekly programming block aimed at the 6-12 year-old market. It proved so successful that it has now been made daily.

Program production has also played its part in Discovery’s plans, and is expected to increase in 1999. Regional productions include the magazine show Living Asia (a copro with Hong Kong’s Bang Productions), and the environmental series Burning Earth (with Singapore Television Twelve), which examined the impact of economic and social development on Indonesia’s eco-systems.

Locally-tailored themed events have also played a part in the Asian schedules. dci’s global archive was used to create the strand Dark Zone, a regionally-specific look at the spirit world. Tiger, Tiger was a tribute to this endangered species, produced to coincide with 1998′s Year of the Tiger.

Off screen, Discovery has involved local Asian territories in its ‘Clean Up The World’ campaign. This program went down particularly well in Taiwan, where the Taipei mayor and local children got involved in a green awareness scheme.

McIntyre stresses Asia will continue to be ‘a robust market. But there are only a limited number of channels geared up to do well here – and Discovery is one of them.’

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.